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Global Economy

European long-distance duel with China

February visit to Senegal. Shortly before the summit of the EU and the African Union, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had a big gift in her luggage: the EU wants to invest 150 billion euros in Africa. That is half of the total volume of its "Global Gateway" investment program, with which the EU wants to gain influence worldwide.

Accordingly, von der Leyen invoked the relevance of the EU for Africa in her speech: "At the summit, investments will be the focus of discussions because they are the means of our common ambitions. In this area, Europe is the most reliable and by far the most important partner for Africa ."

China's lead with the "New Silk Road"

However, the latter describes the goal rather than the status quo. Currently, many countries on the African continent do not consider Europe but China as their most important partner. Because the People's Republic has been investing for years as part of its "New Silk Road" project – in infrastructure and in the economy.

This is also the case in Senegal. Numerous roads, bridges and prestigious buildings such as museums, theaters and sports arenas were built with money and often with the help of workers from China. China has already invested more than two billion euros in Senegal and, according to the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, which is close to the CDU, is by far the largest trading partner. There are shops with cheap Chinese goods in almost every major city in the country. And in the capital Dakar even a large Chinese market.

The Chinese Tchapan also sells clothes here. The 23-year-old came to Senegal almost three years ago, he says in the West African language Wolof: "It's progressing step by step. I sell clothes. It's a messy business. The money is gradually trickling in China supports. They help us."

Many new jobs, but questionable working conditions

Elhadji Alioune Diouf, economics professor at Dakar University, has only positive things to say about the Senegalese-Chinese partnership. Because unlike European donors, the Chinese did not dictate any conditions to the Senegalese. Rather, they supported President Macky Sall's development plan: "The investments are in the interest of the Senegalese government," says Diouf. "It's about stadiums, bridges, roads, highways, hospitals and industrial parks. These are all government infrastructure projects." According to economics expert Diouf, all of these investments also create jobs for Senegalese.

But the working conditions on Chinese construction sites and in Chinese factories are a constant source of criticism: the contracts are usually limited to a few months and the salaries are low. It was not until early December 2021 that around 1,500 Senegalese workers at a Chinese tile factory east of Dakar went on strike. They reported to the French television channel TV5 Monde about a lack of occupational safety and the disrespectful treatment of employees by superiors.

"During a 12-hour shift, there was no break and we didn't even get filtered tap water, while our Chinese supervisors drank bottled mineral water," says machine operator Aliou Ndiaye. "You could almost say we were treated like slaves."

Differentiated considerations from the everyday life of the people

Many people in the population are also critical of the Chinese approach. Hamath Diagne works in the real estate sector. "Often the Chinese don't hire anyone or only very few people," she complains. "They bring their workers with them and take them home after the construction project is complete – as well as all the materials." The investments of the Chinese are quite easily accessible – that's probably why the African states are happy to take advantage of them, suspects Diagne. "But this cooperation is not fruitful – neither for Africans nor for Africa as a whole."

And the small businesswoman Mariama Santos, who runs a restaurant in Dakar and herself trades in clothes and perfumes, says: "The Chinese infrastructure projects offer people in Senegal work – albeit often only temporarily. But the Chinese goods that come here – clothes, shoes and so on – they're not good. They're cheap, yes, and that makes the poor population happy – but they break down quickly and can't be repaired either."

Many countries are in debt to China

Cheap imported goods and easy access to credit without political interference – that's seductive. After just a few years, many African countries found themselves indebted to China. East African Kenya, for example, already owes the People's Republic eight times as much money as France, its second largest creditor.

The Senegalese economic expert Diouf also sees this danger. Apart from the debt, he doesn't really see any disadvantages. But: "We should monitor the development of this debt to prevent it from affecting future economic growth."

The European Union is aware of this weakness in Chinese involvement. Instead of loans, the EU should primarily grant grants that do not have to be repaid. Competition also stimulates business in Africa.

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